Iraq's Political Miracle

The critics will escalate their grumbling ahead of Sunday’s vote, and there will be more violence. But Iraq’s newborn democracy is a juggernaut that will not be stopped.

Mushtaq Muhammad / Reuters

Cast your minds back to 2005, to an Iraq that was bloody, but unbowed. Those were the days when our newspapers carried daily accounts of carnage, flecking their pages with the photographs of dead American soldiers, little snapshot-bursts of accusation against an administration in Washington that was thought by many to have lost the plot in Iraq.

Amid the mayhem in Iraq that year, there took place an event that was quite unprecedented in the Arab world—the first Iraqi elections. There were enduring images from that election, of ink-stained fingers held aloft by men and women who had exercised their brand-new right to vote—empurpled digits held up, for the cameras of the world, as an “up yours” to Saddam Hussein and his Baathists, to “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” and to every sanguinary insurgent who would kill to stop the implanting in Iraq of democracy.

No matter what happens in this election, Iraq will not slip back into civil war as it did after the 2005 election. Iraqis have learned that war will not yield anything but bitter fruit in a democracy. Boycotts are a mug’s game.

Iraq has seen other elections since that first one—sometimes twice a year. They have all been significant, though none has been as profusely emotional as the first. With the exception of the latter, which the Sunnis stupidly boycotted, turnout has been consistently high—certainly higher than the turnout in most American elections. And so it should be, one expects, on Sunday, March 7, when Iraqis vote—yet again—for the government of their choice. We have not, of course, reached a position where we can talk about “just another Iraqi election.” But if you look at how our newspapers are covering the run-up to the event, you will see in the reporting the sorts of observations that might be made in the last lap before an Indian general election, or a South African, Brazilian, or Turkish one. There are accounts of colorful billboards and posters, of infighting within parties over prospective alliances, of candidates doling out gifts—free chickens, sports shoes, clothes, even money—to cannily undecided voters. Accounts of violence do not predominate, and no one is asking—as they did with trepidation in 2005, and as they have done, often, since—whether Iraq will be safe enough for people to vote.

Michael Hastings: Iraq’s Last Election? Iraq today is not the Iraq of 2005. So much so that one is tempted to say that our war there is over. In fact, Joe Biden had the chutzpah to brag in Larry King’s salon that Iraq will soon be “one of the great achievements of this administration”—an observation that might lead some to believe that our work there is done. Yet it is important—as a colonel who has spent time in Iraq told me recently—that we don't try to define war as something that is either “on” or “off.” There are varying degrees of conflict, and operations in Iraq have seen them all: There was insurgency in 2004-05; a proto-civil war in 2006; successful counterinsurgency in 2007; and a tailing off of the conflict in 2009-2010. As the colonel told me, “The fact that the current operation is winding up and we’re starting Operation New Dawn shows that we have identified this September as starting the next phase of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.”

Everyone, from the Iraqis to Gen. David Petraeus, says they believe that Iraqi security measures are sufficient for the polling. As a military observer who has served in Iraq told me, “They appear to be very well prepared for the elections. Recall that recent violence during the Arba'een [a Shiite mourning ceremony] took place outside the Iraqi security cordons, and around religious sites. So we can expect some indirect fire near polling sites, but I don't believe we will have much violence in the polling sites themselves.” Let us pray that he is right.

Iraqi democracy, let us not forget, is entering only its fifth year. It is patently imperfect to Western eyes, but it is, on its own terms, a miracle. Contrast Iraq—as the peerless Fouad Ajami did Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal—with Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled undemocratically for 29 years! For all the violence in their land, Iraqis have something that Egyptians crave: the vote. It is no wonder that Mubarak pours scorn on Iraq: Had Egyptians had a free vote at any time during his heavy-handed time as pharaoh, they would have sent him packing from Cairo seated on the back of an ass. And as I read accounts, in The New York Times, of Iraq’s electioneering—of the posters and billboards of competing politicians from competing parties, offering their competing visions and manifestos—I pitied the Egyptians who see the face of only one politician on their billboards.

Iraq’s version of democracy is not our version, with its Jeffersonian (and Lockean) complexities and protections. The Iraqis are only just starting to forge a social contract among themselves. Their fights over electoral eligibility—especially over the exclusion of Baathists—are fundamental to the nature of their new civitas (think of the Tories during and after the Revolutionary War in America). Errors will be made, and have been: The exclusion of Saleh al-Mutlaq, a notable Sunni politician, is regarded by many as one such mistake; but even he, justifiably aggrieved, has revoked his call to his supporters to boycott the election. This is not merely statesmanship, it is a powerful indication of democracy’s growing grip on Iraq.

Mutlaq is painfully aware that his own side will be harmed if they spurn a place at the table of the enfranchised. That is what happened in 2005, when the Sunnis, fearful of democracy, and of its empowerment of the Shiites, largely boycotted the election. Now, having seen democracy at close quarters, and having counted the cost of their self-inflicted political wounds, they are in no doubt about the importance of participation. This is why—no matter what happens in this election—Iraq will not slip back into civil war as it did after the 2005 election. Iraqis have learned that war will not yield anything but bitter fruit in a democracy. Boycotts are a mug’s game.

Of those Americans who will carp about Iraq’s elections being no better than a census (with the country cleaving along sectarian/ethnic lines), and who will underscore many other imperfections, I would simply ask that they look at their own history. It took the U.S. until 1787 to adopt the Constitution, until 1870 to (very imperfectly) enfranchise black adult males, until 1920 to enfranchise adult females, and until 1964-65 to guarantee voting rights to black citizens. Democracies go through a very long process of consolidation. It will not take the Iraqis anywhere near as long as it took us, because there are examples for them to emulate, or to beware of. It takes time—sometimes a very long time—to apportion power among different groups within a nascent political system. What Iraq has achieved in five years is a political wonder, and those who would deny that are being very, very dishonest.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated the first Iraqi elections took place under Paul Bremer. In fact, he left in 2004; it has since been updated.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)